Alan Dean

CTO, Developer, Agile Practitioner

Photograph of Alan Dean

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Agility is not Viral

Please note: This post was originally published on my Charteris blog in 2008 but is no longer accessible so I’m republishing it here as I feel it remains important.

At Charteris Day this week, we had a series of presentations discussing Agility. The various speakers covered both Business Consultancy (with a focus on our 'Customer Centricity' capability) and from the Technology Consultancy (with a focus on Agile software development). My contribution was to give a 20 minute talk explaining why I felt that the presentation ("Future Directions for Agile") by David Anderson at Agile 2008 in August was so important.

At the head of my presentation I discussed something that I have been articulating for some time now (including during the Park Bench session at the Alt.Net Conference) and I thought it would be worth repeating here to see if others agree with me or not.

First, a little background. During the late 90's I was developing shrinkwrap software using RAD. Whilst I was working for the IVIS Group on in 2002, I was introduced to eXtreme Programming. Since that time I have considered myself an extreme programmer, rather than an Agilist (for various reasons that I won't bore you with right now) and have acted as an agent of change at a number of organisations.

In hindsight, I think that at the beginning of the Millennium we genuinely believed that our principles and practices would prove to be viral and that the meme would spread. After all, we could demonstrate how effective the practices were. We could measure productivity and velocity in a far more transparent manner than  hitherto. The team members felt more empowered and gained more satisfaction from their work. Sponsors felt that, often for the first time, that they actually knew what their development staff were doing and how well. Sponsors especially appreciated the visibility of functional gain and the ability to direct the functional implementation. These characteristics were (and still are) real. It is not an illusion.

Given the reality of these powerful advantages, how could it not be viral? Why would the meme not spread? Yet it has not. At least, it has not in the way that we envisaged.

It is true that the term Agile Development has gained wide currency now, although perhaps not wide understanding. Many, possibly a majority, of development teams aspire to be Agile. It is also true that there are more agile teams now than there were. My observation about a lack of virality is separate to this.

So what do I mean? Over the years, I have engaged with a number of teams to, amongst other objectives, bring in Agile development practices; to act as an agent of change. To a greater or lesser extent, these engagements have proven successful and the teams grew demonstrably more Agile and effective. But then, the time comes to move on to the next engagement. After the departure of the agent of change, the team reverts to the status quo ante. Not immediately, but visibly and certainly. It isn't a deliberate, conscious decision to do so - it just happens, gradually. Six months or a year later, it is as if you had never been there.

Remember, this is a scenario where everyone was actually happier, more contented and fulfilled when they were Agile. Astonishing.

There have been times when I have questioned my own ability to effect change because of this phenomenon. It was very refreshing to hear David Anderson articulate that he has encountered the same problems.

If we accept that Agility is not viral then we are bound to start asking the question: why?

I will start by saying that I have no potted answer to this question, I am still in the process of seeking to gain understanding, but my first candidate explanation is this: "people are intrinsically lazy".

Ouch. That sounds contentious! Well, it shouldn't be. After all, there is a reason why we prefer to buy labour-saving devices. There is a reason why people walk across the grass along the hypotenuse of the trianglewhen the path follows the other two sides.

So why might laziness be an issue? I suspect it is because Agility is hard work. The practices we espouse are difficult and require us to work at a more challenging pace. Even if we feel better for doing it, it is easier not to do it. It is much the same as exercise. Why do gyms offer 'new joiner deals' in January? It is because they know full well that only a fraction of people will actually use their facilities all year and after the Christmas break people feel guilty about all that excess consumption.

Sponsors love the transparency of agile functional gain but it takes effort from them to achieve it. Sponsors are busy and in the absence of that agent of change hounding them to set aside time to contribute to the development process they start to miss meetings, they stop engaging fully with the development team and so agility is lost. The development team is just as guilty though. They too are busy people and it takes effort to ensure that the quality control practices are maintained. Knowing that the agent of change isn't around anymore to catch them out, they start cutting corners on their TDD. Before long, the team reverts to being less agile; possibly even entirely ceasing TDD for example.

The direction that David is taking in his talk is to look again at the CMM and he certainly marshals some strong arguments. He also challenges some of our practices by asking if Lean and Kanban are Agile. I am not yet wholly sure that these are the right answers but he is certainly asking the right questions.

I have a feeling that perhaps we have historically had a very mechanistic view of people and process. Perhaps this is why we assumed that agility would be viral, because we assumed utility was inherently compelling. When I use the term 'we' here, I suppose that I am really talking about alpha geeks. The same people who naturally gravitated to extreme programming, agile and now to This is why there are so many discussions about "is" and so on. If so, we need to recognise that most people are not like us. Even most software developers, I suspect. We therefore face the very real challenge of how to make agility sticky.

My suspicion is that we need to become sociologists and learn how to enculture organisations with agility.

I am very happy to say that I think that the agility presentations at Charteris Day look like they have succeeded in sparking the debate I believe is needed to grow our capability further as a consultancy; to better leverage the depth of knowledge in the company and to harness this for our clients. I'm sure that I will have more to say on this subject in the future.

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